Lawsuit filed to block university’s sale of Georgia O’Keeffe painting to fund dorm renovations

A lawsuit to halt the proposed sale of three of the most notable artworks from the University of Valparaiso’s Brauer Museum of Art The permanent collection was filed April 24 in Porter County Superior Court in Indiana. The paintings—Georgia O’Keeffe’s Rust Red Hills (1930), Frederic E. Church’s Mountain Landscape (1865), and Childe Hassam’s The Silver Veil and the Golden Gate (1914)—were valued together at $20 million, and Jose D. Padilla , the university’s president, publicly announced in February that the money generated from its sale would be used to upgrade college dormitories with “amenities and features that prospective students appreciate and expect.”

The lawsuit — which names Padilla, Valparaiso University and Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita as defendants — alleges that the proposed sale “contradicts the donor’s intent,” which was “to serve the cause of arts education both in a practical as well as to serve and promote culturally” by establishing galleries at the university to exhibit the donated art. “Plaintiffs and the general public will suffer irreparable harm if Valparaiso University violates the donor’s intent and liquidates trust assets for purposes not contemplated by the donor. (The Attorney General was not appointed because of any alleged wrongdoing on his part, but to get Rokita to stop the sale, as Attorneys General are responsible for ensuring that nonprofits are in compliance with the law, that their assets are properly managed and spent, and that directors and Officers fulfill their fiduciary duties.)

Valparaiso University joins other educational institutions such as Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois, Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, which for the past two decades have attempted to to trim their art collections to raise money for other campus needs.

The history of the University of Valparaiso’s art collection, which dates back to 1953, is a little more unusual than that of other colleges and universities. In 1953, a trust containing 400 works of art and approximately $188,000 was donated to the University by Louis P. Miller, the executor, founded in 1945 by Percy H. Sloan (1870-1950), a Chicago public school teacher. According to Richard Brauer, the founding director of the Valparaiso University Art Museum, later renamed the Brauer Museum of Art in his honor — who had never met Percy Sloan but found out about him when he was hired by Valparaiso University as museum director in 1961 — Sloan had spent almost 20 years looking for a museum that would house his collection, which consisted primarily of landscape paintings by his father, Junius R. Sloan (1827-1900).

Percy Sloan could not find museums that would only house his father’s work, but he decided to buy the work of other landscape artists, some by distinguished 19th-century American painters. “He created a respectable ensemble of 19th-century American art to give context to Junius’ work,” Brauer said. Of the Trust’s 400 works of art, 140 were by artists other than his father. These non-Junius paintings “reveal the culture that inspired Junius and give Junius a reason for being.”

Three years after Percy Sloan’s death, Miller was able to secure a contract with Valparaiso University to accept all 400 paintings, and the agreement stipulated that the museum would “display a representative selection of the works of Junius R. Sloan in a convenient location less than once a year”.

Childe Hassam, The Silver Veil and the Golden Gate, 1914, Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University Via Wikimedia Commons

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Brauer and Philipp Brockington, a retired university law professor emeritus and a benefactor of a fund set up specifically to endow the Brauer Museum of Art, allege that nothing in Percy Sloan’s last will and testament nor the The Valparaiso University Trust Agreement “contains a policy, commonly referred to as a ‘deaccessioning policy,’ permitting Valparaiso University to sell donated or purchased items using the trust corpus of the Percy H. Sloan Trust.”

In recent decades, it was not uncommon for donations of objects to museums to be subject to conditions, e.g. B. the requirement that pieces should be displayed regularly, that donated items must be displayed together and not sorted out, or that nothing may be sold, but nowadays museum directors can refuse gifts that come with certain conditions. Museum directors and curators are aware that tastes and priorities change, and they are very reluctant to make commitments that tie the hands of their successors. Brauer acknowledges that the Sloan Trust’s 1953 donation would not be welcome in 2023. “We constantly struggle with the problem of strings attached to donations,” he says.

Still, Patrick B. McEuen, the attorney representing Brauer and Brockington in this lawsuit, says “attitudes change over 70 years, but restrictions don’t.”

Another unusual element in this dispute is that neither Brauer, 95, nor Brockington, 83, are related to Percy Sloan, a lifelong bachelor with no issue, nor have they ever met him. Brauer has what McEuen calls “‘common law standing’ because he can and does demonstrate a vested interest in the outcome of the litigation, namely the reputation associated with the use of his name in a university museum.” Brauer adds that “if the university goes ahead with the sale of these paintings, I want my name removed from the museum.”

Brockington’s association with the art museum stems from his contributions to the Brockington Reeve Endowment Fund, which aims to “acquire, restore, and preserve” artworks and artifacts for the Brauer Museum of Art. According to the complaint, the foundation provides that “if the university determines that the donor’s original intent can no longer be fulfilled, the university may hold and administer the fund ‘for a purpose most closely related to the donors’ primary original intent matches. which should support the art in the Brauer Kunstmuseum'”.

Brockington says the paintings the university is trying to sell are “the heart of the art museum” and that the sale would put the brewers “in disrepute compared to other museums” across the country. Unlike Brauer, Brockington doesn’t wait for the university to sell these artworks before taking action: “I’ve already changed my will to move the Porter County Museum” — a local history museum also located in Valparaiso, Indiana — “to the beneficiaries of my estate.”

Unlike some other university museums, the Brauer Museum of Art has a particularly close relationship with Valparaiso professors, particularly with regard to the core first-year program. Classes are regularly held at the museum that highlight artworks in the collection in relation to course content, and “Professors from across campus come in to discuss their own research and evaluate one or more works in the collection as a springboard for discussion says Jonathan Canning, the current director of the museum. Salena Anderson, associate professor of English, says she’s “used the brewer in my classes to integrate an appreciation of art and literature,” most recently for a discussion of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home (2006). Other faculty members noted a meteorologist who taught a course at the Brauer to point out types of clouds in certain landscape paintings and a botanist who used artwork to identify plant species.

Tabitha Porter, a freshman creative writing major in Valparaiso, says she visits the museum regularly and claims that “I’ve been to the brewer by myself about six times this semester and probably nine or ten times for classes and assignments that did that.” been detained there”.

Frederic E. Church, Mountain Landscape, c. 1849, Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University Via Wikimedia Commons

Of the three works of art for sale, only one had been purchased by Percy Sloan himself – the work of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church – while the other two had been purchased by Brauer with funds from the Trust. Brauer described Percy Sloan’s own taste in art as “conservative, a little formulaic. He opposed modernism.” About the O’Keeffe painting that Brauer bought for the museum’s collection, Sylvia Preston, the daughter of Percy’s Sloan’s aunt and his closest and last remaining relative, who died in 2011, told Brauer, that “Percy would like it”.

Padilla’s announcement was condemned by several museum associations, including the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, and the Association of Art Museum Curators, as well as by a resolution of the university’s faculty board and claimed that the loss of these works of art from the museum would belittle the reputation of both the university and its museum and that accepted museum policy requires that all proceeds from the sale of objects from a permanent collection be used solely for further acquisitions and not for others purposes.

“The situation in Valparaiso is no different from other previous cases where a museum or its parent institution decides to sell art to fund capital investments, service debt or meet other operational costs,” Julia Marciari-Alexander, President of AAMD and Director of the Walters Art Museum said in a statement. “As we have stated in the past, we believe the rules of the AAMD apply to all art museums, including those that are not members of the association, as they represent the best practice approach to managing museum collections for future generations .”

New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, for example, recently announced plans to sell seven paintings from its permanent collection, including works by Edward Hopper, John Marin, and Maurice Prendergast, but the announcement said the proceeds from the sale of those artworks at Sotheby’s on May 16th to be used solely to “support future acquisitions”, making it an acceptable practice in museums.

John Ruff, senior research professor at the University of Valparaiso’s English Department, claimed that “a sale of the three works would really damage the reputation of the museum and therefore the reputation of the university”.